Building Culture first: An agility cornerstone

Tonći Jajić
Mar 11, 2019 · 7 min read
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In my previous article, I’ve touched slightly on the importance of the company’s (and team’s) culture when creating and improving a process. I feel like a more in-depth look is needed to properly explain how our culture is the main driver of our success. Even though our values are written down, real-life implementation deserves a deeper look.

Some weeks ago, we had a minor communication hiccup between the team and someone from the management. They’ve asked for something they shouldn’t have, and over a wrong channel. It was all in a hurry and they ended up getting a confusing and confused response.

The actual details of the “altercation” are not so important. What’s important is that it resulted in a not-so-minor situation with both sides feeling not-so-well. Those things have to happen every once in a while, we’re all flawed humans and our communication can’t be perfect. It’s how you deal with these missteps that counts.

By the next day, like clockwork, both sides initiated the “hey, let’s get together and talk about this” protocol (a post-mortem, if you don’t mind the ominous name). Within a few minutes the air was clear, apologies were made on both sides, both sides explained their perspective and we moved on to actually investigating what was the root cause of the issue and what are actual action points needed to make sure something like that doesn’t happen again and we come out of it with a better process.

It took less than a day to get from a tense situation to actual improvement. And when I broke down and analyzed the events within those 24 hours, it amazed me how many cultural wins had to happen to get that end result and how much is our focus on building culture first paying off.

Empower your team

During the “incident” itself, it took less than a minute from team to go from “Okay, boss!” to full-on “Wait but why?” mode. Level of (buzzword warning) empowerment, self-organization, and product ownership showed still makes me feel warm inside, even if (in hindsight) it was a bit of an overreaction. And it was amazing to watch the gears turn and team putting the process in place in real time, adding safeguards and making sure that everything is covered according to their idea of a best and safest path for the product.

Most of the managers and companies, regardless of what they proclaim publicly, don’t really want self-sufficient, independent and empowered individuals and teams in their structure. And, don’t get me wrong, it is challenging at times. The amount of control you’re “giving away” (if you’re the kind of a person with an illusion you actually have some semblance of control) is scary. I’ll even admit it often feels like an endless uphill battle, especially if you’re caught between the client’s idea of ideal pace and the team’s idea of an ideal release candidate.

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Photo by Mitchell Orr on Unsplash

But it’s an investment that pays off with generous interest. I worry no more if the proposed product features make sense or if the release planned will add value, if the process in place is good enough or if we stick to the best practices. I know that safeguards are in place and that I’ll get an overwhelming number of red flags from the team if anything is out of place or some scenario isn’t covered. Sure, the illusion of control is out of the window, but the fact that you have ten product owners, ten process guardians or ten anti-pattern hunters is liberating.

And I sometimes even get credited for amazing things the team has built when all I’ve done was trying to get out of their way. Worth it.

Critique welcome

After the storm has passed, the team didn’t spare a second to start analyzing (maybe in a less calm manner than the term implies) everything that went wrong. It took some time but by the end of it, they knew what it is exactly they are unhappy about.

Since we’ve instituted a lot of ways to measure general state of the company as well as ways for teams and individuals to reach out when either happy, unhappy or just want to bounce some ideas and see what’s going on (like measuring happiness index, regular/daily anonymous polls, 1-on-1s with both team leads and People Operations, team-on-1s with management and general bothering people on Slack and in hallways etc.) team acted quickly and sent a “this was suboptimal, let’s talk this through” message out on multiple channels.

We’ve all, I’m guessing, worked in the companies where critique was frowned upon. You’d look bad if you said something about your colleague’s, let alone your manager’s, work. I don’t rock your boat, you don’t rock mine — and boss’ yacht is way off limits. That’s not only a telltale sign of insecure management but also makes absolutely no sense.

If you’re in the software development business, you’ll make a habit of letting your peers and seniors review your code (or, even better, you’ll make it a part of the process). You’ll have QA test your solution after that. Yet, even though we’re all basically junior-to-mid-level humans (and all managers are junior-level managers for perpetuity by design), we feel and act like our actions and behaviors need no review or bug fixing. That’s just plain insanity.

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Photo by NESA by Makers on Unsplash

We strongly believe in review and critique. And that goes hand in hand with our ideal of empowered teams and individuals. Teams that are trained to speak their minds in an environment that’s willing to adopt the critique and adapt to it is what we’re striving for. An honest review is what helps teams, individuals and company as a whole to grow and evolve. The fact that the boat has not been rocked is of little use if it’s leaking or sinking.

Culture trickles down

As I said, the next morning we’ve handled everything. Few individual talks and a retrospective, some action points and we were on our way to a better process. But as important as the actual way we’ve done it is the reason we were able to do it in the first place.

You see, in order for it to work, it has to happen both ways. The team has to be able to explain what they’ve perceived as wrong and be heard. Management has to be able to articulate their point of view without it feeling like a reprimand and be understood. Management has to have the capacity to listen, explain, understand, apologize and make amends as much as the team does (or perhaps even more).

Any other power balance and the whole thing is doomed.

You can try to make your team as empowered as possible and have everyone review everything, but it all falls apart if the management is used to putting their feet down no matter what. “My way or the highway” usually leads to the highway to a better place to work, no matter how hard you try on a team level.

Photo by Colton Sturgeon on Unsplash

We’re blessed with the fact that in Typeqast we understand that the culture is a trickle-down thing as much as it is a grassroots thing. Our senior management not only embraces our culture but pushes its limits. Our team leadership and project management (time to toot our own horns) work both ways, pushing our management a bit if they stray off course and trying to live what we preach.

Our teams will not be empowered if we’re not. Individuals won’t take the review seriously if their bosses don’t. The only way to nurture the culture of change is to embrace the change yourself.

This is, to be frank, no new revelation. Pick up any piece of literature that means anything in agile, lean or management and a good part of it will be stressing the importance of culture. Toyota Production System is meaningless without The Toyota Way and its 14 principles. Scrum is of little sense without an agile mindset. Agile manifesto’s first value is, after all:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

And yet, culture building is often overlooked or straight up ignored. Maybe it’s due to the fact that there’s no actual some-hundred-pages silver bullet manual for it like you have for processes and methodologies. Maybe you don’t want to try to shake things up if you plan to cash your checks and move on as soon as the new opportunity comes by. Maybe your turnover is high, and it makes little sense to bother. There’s an endless supply of excuses.

It’s a never-ending task, yes. It seems like a moonshot thing to do, sure. But, to paraphrase JFK, we choose to do it not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

Creating great culture, while challenging, is the best thing you can do for your company, period.


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